Blog 20

We must support country-level nutrition stakeholders to respond to the COVID crisis and set a stronger course towards a more nourished world

In Blog 20 in our in our series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, Gerda Verburg the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Coordinator and a UN Assistant Secretary General, provides concrete examples of how SUN country members in Central America, South East Asia and West Africa have responded to the crisis-- keeping nutrition on the agenda and developing new protocols and programmes--in an urgent effort to minimise and prevent increases in malnutrition. In addition to the immediate response she urges us all to use the crisis as an opportunity to learn the lessons of the crisis and put them into practice in the future.

-– Lawrence Haddad

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact all our lives. The full ramifications are still unclear. We do know, however, that of all those affected by this crisis, those already disadvantaged are likely to suffer most.

The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement was founded on the principle that everyone has a right to food and good nutrition. Now especially is not the time to ease up on our efforts. It is even more important now to scale up nutrition actions, funding, coordination, and, last but never least, solidarity for those who need our help the most.

There are already a plethora of funding mechanisms and initiatives to respond to the crisis. They rightly deal with a whole range of important issues. But not enough of the responses focus on food and nutrition.  The crisis and the lockdowns to address it present enormous challenges to the delivery of nutrition programmes, affordable nutritious food and hygienic water and sanitation services.  If these are not dealt with the health crisis will quickly gain a food crisis and this will lead to a perfect storm for a nutrition crisis.  It is important to remember that even before COVID-19 we were in the midst of a silent nutrition crisis. More than 2 million under 5’s die every year, linked to undernutrition.  The potential for rapid drops in GDP combined with disrupted nutrition and social protection programmes, with decimated food supply chains is a recipe for reversing the real nutrition gains made in the last decade of SUN.



Our member countries are responding magnificently to this crisis.  There are too many examples to share here, but I want to share these three. Myanmar’s nutrition champions have ensured that nutrition messaging remains prominent during the crisis; in Central America food and nutrition plans are positioned within regional COVID-19 responses to ensure they do not get lost; and In Niger protocols are being developed to ensure all stakeholders are on the same page with the nutrition response during the fast moving COVID-19 situation:

  • The government of Myanmar is boosting efforts to screen potential COVID-19 cases within the 4 million migrant workers returning from Thailand and China and ensure a 3-week quarantine period in designated centers, ensuring adequate shelter, health, nutrition and hygiene standards. Nutrition messages and nutrition guidance package on COVID-19 have been developed, together with video/audio clips for key nutrition messages in community.
  • In Central America, the Central American Integration System (SICA) has launched a Regional Contingency Plan, aimed at complementing national efforts of preventing, mitigating and treating COVID-19 In the short term, the Plan would address the health emergency, risk management, economic plan, and security. Food Security and Nutrition is well positioned in this Plan, as SICA will coordinate actions within this framework to avoid food crises, and will monitor indicators, especially related to adequate access, availability of food and stability.
  • In Niger, many actions have been taken by different stakeholders to ensure effective assessments of the nutritional situation as well as ensuring maintenance of prevention interventions in face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the government nutrition representatives are not always sufficiently informed or involved in those discussions. The Technical Group on Nutrition, based within the Ministry of Health, and composed of the key nutrition stakeholders are working together to improve coordination via guidelines for the response to COVID-19.

It is heartening to see people stepping up, for local and global action. This feeling of interconnectedness and unity needs to be maintained when we come through this current crisis. Especially if we are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.



UN Secretary-General Guterres is right when he states: the world is only as strong as its weakest health system. How we respond will determine ‘the new reality’ for us all. Our top priority must be to overcome this crisis and ensure everyone is protected, healthy and well-nourished.

Looking to the weeks, months and years ahead, we need to scale up our preparedness. The 2008 financial crisis morphed into a food price crisis that many are still struggling to overcome today. Strengthening systems and ensuring countries are capable to deliver vital services to society, including prevention and treatment of malnutrition, will be essential for the ‘global society’ to really recover. Policy and practice experiences from past epidemics, such as the Ebola outbreak, can teach us crucial lessons regarding not turning a blind eye to nutrition.

In the short term we need to support governments to address the emergency they find themselves in. But too often the focus is only a short- term approach. If we want to learn the lesson of this crisis, we need to include thinking on medium and long- term solutions.    

Let’s use this pandemic-period to re-think how we work, to put in place systemic changes needed, focusing on resilience through health, nutrition and social protection systems that leave no one behind.  Nutrition stakeholders, working together in SUN’s country and state members will be our sources of inspiration, innovation and delivery.  All of us need to support their priorities and their efforts to deliver.

I will always speak up for multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder collaboration and not only for nutrition. The challenges of today and tomorrow are interlinked and we can only solve them by working together as a global community.   


About the author

Gerda Verburg (The Netherlands) has served as UN Assistant Secretary-General and Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, working with the 61 country governments that lead the SUN Movement, united with UN agencies, civil society, business and donors, in a common mission to defeat malnutrition in all its forms. She was appointed by the UN Secretary-General based on her extensive experience in politics and international cooperation.



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